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Maine Newspaper's On-and-Off Gun Permit Info Request Stirs Controversy
02/15/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

The Bangor Daily News has abandoned a freedom of access request for personal information on gun permit holders in Maine. Republican lawmakers and gun rights supporters launched a coordinated attack against the newspaper Thursday, one day after it asked the Maine State Police and local municipalities to supply the records.  As Jay Field reports, critics of the newspaper are raising questions about whether it allowed its journalistic decision-making to be influenced by advertisers and powerful political interests.

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On Wednesday of this week, the Bangor Daily News hit the Maine State Police and local law enforcement agencies with a series of FOA requests for vital information on gun permit holders across the state. In the letters, the BDN assured law enforcement that it had no intention of publishing such information, en masse, on its Web site, like a New York paper did back in December.

Katy Culver is with the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "It's a perfectly acceptable request for public information. But what I think we saw in the New York case is when we do not have ethical reasoning surrounding the publication of - albeit, public - information, we can do harm."

A short time after the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, the Journal News, a suburban New York paper, launched an interactive tool on its Web site. It allowed readers to look up the names and addresses of gun permit holders in two of the three counties the newspaper covers.

But the database was riddled with inaccuracies. The News Journal's editors struggled to come up with a compelling reason for their decision to publish the information and the move was unanimously condemned.

On Thursday, in response to heated criticism from Gov. Paul LePage, other Maine Republicans, gun rights supporters and law enforcement authorities, the BDN's top news official, Anthony Ronzio, issued a statement. Ronzio said his paper needed access to the permit data for in-depth projects the paper is reporting on domestic violence, sexual assault and drug abuse.

And he reiterated that the BDN had no intention to dump all the information into a searchable database on the Web.

"Where was the trust in that word from the get go?"  said Judith Meyer, managing editor of the Sun Journal Newspaper, reacting to word this morning that the BDN was withdrawing all its FOA requests. "That seemed to have been dissolved in this kind of emotional outcry that there was without even giving them a chance to do what they say they were going to do."

Ronzio and the paper's publisher, Rick Warren, declined to comment on the reasons the paper abandoned its public information requests. But media ethics specialist Katy Culver says the paper's leaders would be wise to say more publicly about the
reasoning behind their decision.

"If they don't communicate further about why they made the decision they made, they're leaving a vacuum and people will fill that void voide with, 'We pressured them, they buckled,'" Culver says.

And there has been pressure  For the past twenty-four hours, Republican lawmakers, led by Gov. Paul LePage, have criticized the paper's request for information. This afternoon, LePage announced he was submitting an emergency bill to block the release of the names, addresses and birthdays of firearms permit holders. And a Web site has popped up encouraging subscribers to boycott the BDN and call businesses that advertise with the paper.

Kenneth Fredette, from Newport, is the top Republican in the Maine House. He defends his party's response the FOA request. "There are some First Amendment rights that need to be balanced against Second  Amendment rights. And so in the legislative process, we will make a determination about where that line ought to be, because this is about line drawing."

A big question for some observers of journalism is what sort of line the BDN has drawn by not standing by its FOAs. Katy Culver says the paper's decision could make it tougher to do hard-hitting journalism in the future.

"The precedent is problematic," she says. "This is not the last difficult open records request that that paper is going to make."

In the meantime, the newspaper's decision to withdraw its request for information has sparked heated debate among its online readers.


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